While time has expired on the regular season, the clock is quickly ticking down toward the Early Signing Period, which runs Dec. 19-21. Tennessee had better be ready.
Following yet another losing season, the Vols have plenty of needs to address. I won’t list them all here. However, here are three of the most pressing concerns Tennessee must fix with this class, which is ranked No. 15 in the nation, No. 6 in the SEC:
It’s incredibly difficult to contribute in the SEC as a true freshman offensive lineman. However, it’s possible. Trey Smith did so as a freshman in 2017 when he started 12 games. Georgia’s Cade Mays, a one-time Vols commit, has played well for the Bulldogs this season. However, therein lies the problem.
All programs, including many that have had much more recent success than the Vols, are looking for that early impact player on the offensive line. The Vols landed one in Smith but missed out with Mays, who was a long-time UT commitment before signing with Georgia. That means the competition for future standout underclassmen will be stout.
Fortunately, their lone 5-star commitment in this class is from offensive tackle Wanya Morris, who is 6-5, 311 pounds and considered the best tackle in the country and No. 9 prospect overall, according to 247Sports.com’s composite. Jackson Lampley, another commit, is a 4-star guard from Nashville who checks in at 6-4, 300.
UT’s current group of offensive linemen did their best to man the front last season, but it was far from adequate. The Vols were 112th in the nation in rushing offense and allowed nearly two sacks per game. That’s not nearly good enough.
If everything falls into place, UT could have three solid offensive linemen heading into next season. That’s a big “if.” First, Brandon Kennedy will have to return from an ACL injury. Second, Trey Smith will have to recover from blood clots once again. Lastly, a young player like Ryan Johnson must continue to improve and elevate his play. Even if all of that happens, the Vols need another one or two players who can contribute at a high level immediately.
Assuming they sign, Morris and Lampley are the best bets.
An edge pass rusher
The Vols have 1 5-star and 7 4-stars among the commits, but none is a prototypical pass rusher. Roman Harrison, a 3-star, is their highest-rated edge rushing commit.
The Vols got some flashes from their current group of defenders but nothing consistent enough to scare opponents on a weekly basis. Whether it’s a stand-up linebacker or a weakside defensive end, Tennessee has to get more pressure on the passer without blitzing. Much like dominant freshmen offensive linemen, those guys are hard to find.
The weakness has been a glaring one since Derek Barnett’s standout season in 2016. There’s no question that Jeremy Pruitt can coach up a defense and put his players in the right scheme to mask deficiencies. His resume is proof of that. However, if the Vols don’t have a player that can consistently beat one-on-one pass blocking, Pruitt is coaching with one hand tied behind his back.
An explosive tailback
Similarly, the staff is still searching for a running back. It doesn’t have a commitment from one yet in this class, and only 7 of the top 50 RBs in the class remain uncommitted.
UT’s set of tailbacks each had their moments last season but none showed consistent big-play ability. The Vols were hoping freshman Jeremy Banks would be that type of tailback, but then UT’s coaches moved him to linebacker. Therefore, there must be some doubt as to just how good Banks can be at running back. Moreover, Banks’ explosiveness would be a welcome addition to UT’s defense.
This should be a relatively easy need to address. Running back is one of the easiest positions to have an impact as a freshman. The Vols could certainly use that. UT struggled all season to break big plays. A standout tailback could change the entire identity of Tennessee’s offense.
Certainly, there are other needs that could help the Vols next season, such as improved linebacker play and bigger defensive backs. Pruitt has addressed some of that with this class.
But just how different could the Vols be in one season if they can refurbish their offensive line, find a disruptive pass rusher and an explosive tailback? Well, I’d be willing to bet Tennessee would be bowl eligible.